Where’s the absolute best burrito in San Francisco? The most delicious cheesesteak in Philadelphia? Welcome to Best in Town, where we call on a local expert to share the absolute best versions of their city’s most iconic food.
Chicago is a meat town. Hot dogs, burgers, and Italian beef are what we’re known for. But which dish becomes your go-to largely depends on how you grew up. My family was all about Italian beef.
I was raised by an Italian stepfather, but it’s my Mexican father who I most associate with Italian beef, one of Chicago’s most iconic dishes. As a recent immigrant to Chicago in 1989, he made his living in the world of hospitality—including working as a catering delivery driver for the Italian beef shop Buona Beef. For him, a combo sandwich (an Italian sausage buried under a mound of thinly sliced beef) is synonymous with Chicago. One bite and he’s transported to his younger days, hustling towards his vision of a better future.
The Italian working class created the dish out of scarcity in the early 1900s, as a way to tenderize cheap meat and soften stale bread. A classic Italian beef is composed of slivers of slow-cooked, lean-cut beef on gravy-soaked French bread. The meat, usually a chuck roast or top sirloin, simmers in a rich bath of spices. Depending on the restaurant, that could mean oregano, garlic, parsley, basil, black pepper, or all of the above. After a few hours of tenderizing, the beef comes out of the liquid and cools until sliceable. Once shaved into paper-thin strips, it returns to its hot sea of spices to simmer until it’s time to be served. Cooks pile that beef high on sturdy rolls (the best shops source their bread from Turano Baking Co.) and top it all off with giardiniera, a medley of pickled vegetables like celery, carrots, cauliflower, chili peppers, and olives.
The sign of a good Italian beef is that it’s not greasy. If you want to get fancy, you might refer to the thin juice that’s used to cook and rehydrate Italian beef as jus, but in the Midwest, you’re more likely to hear it called gravy. The gravy is spooned back over the finished sandwich to ensure nothing goes to waste—and in the process, it softens the crusty French bread. This bread-soaking technique is known as a wet sandwich. Can’t get enough of the juice? Order it “dipped,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a sandwich dunked in beef broth. The crust might be crunchy, but the insides should be fluffy and thick. The recommended eating protocol is to consume your sandwich on-site, as soon after ordering as possible. If that’s not an option, get your sandwich dry with juice on the side to give you a fighting chance of making it to your destination with a semi-intact meal.
Italian beef may have humble roots, but everywhere from old school institutions to Michelin-starred spots celebrate this dish. Chefs at restaurants like the James Beard Award-winning Filipino restaurant Kasama are putting their own twist on the sandwich. It even starred in the first season of hit TV show The Bear, giving Italian beef a deserved boost in popularity. No matter their background, pretty much everyone in Chicago has a version of this sandwich that they love.